Author: Brad Deen
NASHVILLE— In black robes and mortarboards over tan prison uniforms, 13 offenders graduated from the Field Ministers program Wednesday at Nash Correctional Institution.
With newly earned bachelor’s degrees, the field ministers will soon disperse to other prisons to serve as spiritual guides, counselors and “an instrument of positive change,” said Todd Ishee, secretary of the N.C. Department of Adult Correction.
“You guys have an opportunity to touch a lot of people’s lives—at the highs of their lives and the lows,” Ishee said. “Ask yourselves, ‘How do I lift up someone at a low point in their lives?’”
The Class of 2022 is the second to graduate from the Field Ministers program. It is a combined effort of:
- the state prison system
- The College at Southeastern Baptist Seminary of Wake Forest
- and Game Plan for Life, a nonprofit organization founded by Joe Gibbs, three-time Super Bowl-winning football coach and NASCAR team owner.
“It takes courage to go through these four years as you’ve done,” Gibbs told the graduates. “You have an army of people to support you, to pray for you. We’re convinced you’re going to change people’s lives. We’re thrilled to be a part of your mission.”
The class presented Gibbs with a portrait of his son, Coy, who died in November. His other son, J.D., died in 2019.
Gibbs’s voice broke as he spoke about his loss. “It really captures Coy, always wearing a baseball cap,” he said of the painting. “I appreciate these guys so much and their talent. They’ve sent me cards. I could feel the love and the way they cared for my family.”
The portrait’s painter, Robert Odom, also a graduating field minister, said Gibbs “has meant a lot to us, to this program. We wanted to give something back, to let him know how much we love him and appreciate him.”
Odom, like nine of his 12 classmates, earned his degree with honors. Seth Bible, a professor at the college and director of its Prison Programs, said the group was “a resilient class with truly remarkable individuals. They have overcome incredible odds and achieved something very few people in their context have achieved.”
Their success, Bible said, plus the fact that two-thirds of offenders accepted into the program stick with it through graduation, “is proof that a private and public partnership supporting educational efforts is, in fact, possible.”
After the formal ceremony, graduates and their families enjoyed a catered lunch. The three children of Francisco Marquez Martinez took turns examining his honors diploma.
“He’s the first of us to get a degree,” said daughter Karime, who lives in Holly Springs. “It’s an incredible feeling to see his dedication and hard work pay off.”
A few tables over, Isaac Timmons sat with two sisters and a family friend. He’s looking forward to helping offenders “who are going through the same things I’ve been through,” he said.
“A lot of the men in here, they come from broken homes, poverty. They see the guys in the neighborhood with the girls, the money, the cars, and they think that’s the life,” Timmons said. “If we can get through to them the first time they’re in here, with a short sentence, they won’t get that longer sentence. That’s what we’re going to do.”
“Come to the pulpit!” interjected his sister, Lola Timmons of Raleigh. “Everybody line up!”
As the table’s laughter faded, she said her brother “isn’t the same person he was when he first came here. He could have been on the street, could have been killed. One bad choice could have taken him away forever.”
The new field ministers will transfer next month to Craven, Scotland, Alexander and Columbus correctional facilities. The 2021 program class serves at Foothills, Granville, Piedmont, Warren and Nash prisons.
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